Highly Engaged Young American Jews: Contrasts in Generational Ethos

September, 2010
In an interview Manfred Gerstenfeld,  Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, discusses the emerging trends of Jewish identity being developed by young Jewish adults in the USA. He describes how young American Jews have taken their Jewish engagement to an extreme American Jewish individualism.
Among the major points made by Cohen:
  • Many engaged Jews under the age of forty emphasize, more than their elders and predecessors, Jewish purpose. They have created new minyanim, expanded social justice activities, engaged in various cultural endeavors, undertaken Judaic learning singly and in groups, and established a powerful and significant presence on the Internet and other new media.

  • Alongside these areas of new and sustained emphasis, even the most Jewishly engaged younger adults - not just the unengaged ones - in the United States express much-diminished sensitivity to matters of external threats to Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Intermarriage, anti-Semitism, Israel's security, and campaigns to delegitimize Israel may strongly motivate older engaged American Jews. But such issues excite relatively little resonance among their younger counterparts, particularly those involved in innovative activities largely outside (or alongside) the longstanding established organizations.

  • Affiliation with a particular movement - denominational, ideological, or otherwise - is less prevalent for the younger generation of engaged American Jews. Conventional belonging to anything, not just things Jewish, is neither automatic nor self-justifying. Many young Jews have shifted their identity's locus from people and organizations to purpose and principles. The larger society is characterized by customization, niche marketing, as well as a wider diversity of options. Not only is the menu of cultural elements longer, the ways in which options are assembled are more diverse and idiosyncratic.

  • Engaged young Jewish adults resist what they see as coercive expectations. They see once widely accepted normative standards - such as in-marriage and support of Israel - as optional, tentative, and, at best, a means to expressing higher Jewish purpose. In this and other ways, they extend the notion of the "sovereign self," which was advanced and propounded as characterizing Baby Boomers, the parents of the current generation of highly engaged Jewish young adults, in The Jew Within a decade ago.
Updated: Oct. 05, 2010